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How to Learn, or, Your Brain: A User's Manual

August 21, 2015

 

The concept of studying is at the core of our learning institutions. It's what you're supposed to be doing in college. Still, just how you're meant to do it remains one of the many mysteries of college; the drop out rate is about 33%.

 

To be fair, there's a number of reasons a person might drop out of college, but for those who are looking to up their study game, here are some quick neuroscience facts to work smarter and not harder.

 

1. Eliminate distractions. Splitting focus with your smartphone, tablet, TV, or roommate blathering away will force your brain to "task switch", flipping back and forth and draining your brain's energy reserves. This will drastically reduce your ability to move information into your memory for later retrieval.

 

It might feel like multitasking, but research shows that attempting multiple demanding tasks at once sets you up for the 50/50 rule. That is, you'll make 50% more mistakes and you'll take 50% longer than if you were single-tasking.

 

2. Read a passage and then close your book or laptop, and attempt to recreate as many key points as you can remember on paper. (Yes, on paper: the act of physically writing the letters will create stronger memories.)

 

When you're done writing, check it against your book or computer for what you missed. Then add the missing info to your notes and highlight it.

 

3. For best results, stay hydrated and grab a small, high-protein snack (a fistful of nuts, for instance) about twenty minutes before you start, and then again once you've finished.

 

4. Work in 15 minute increments. This is the maximum amount of time most of us can stay at peak focus. After 15 minutes, take a five to ten minute break. Don't stare out the window; perform some physical activity that doesn't require much thinking: walking, juggling, playing the guitar, etc.

 

Follow this process repeatedly during the week, rather than saving it all for the night before the big test.

 

5. When you're standing, you drive 20% more oxygen and blood to the brain, significantly increasing your ability to think. Consider studying at a standing desk.

 

6. Semantic information (facts, figures, main ideas) gets processed by your brain during the first phase of sleep, so make sure you go to bed at a reasonable hour. "Reasonable" can vary from person to person, but your goal is to get eight hours of sleep on a relatively consistent schedule.

 

Remember: it's not just about being able to stay alert throughout your day. Caffeine is no substitute. Sleeping is a crucial part of the memory-encoding process.

 

Pulling an all-night before an exam may work in the short run, but it's unlikely to encode permanent memories. If your goal is to retain what you're learning for the rest of your life, it's not a good option.

 

7. Based on a normal circadian rhythm, that 24-hour hour clock humans run on, you're most likely to be at your mental peak four to six hours after waking.

 

Studying after you've eaten a large meal or when you're very tired will hurt your performance.

 

8. That said, getting it done is always better than endlessly waiting around for ideal conditions to arise. Beware of procrastination and the natural human tendency to delegate your studies to some "future-self", the bright-eyed, more restful you of tomorrow. (Future-self has a bad habit of not showing up.)

 

The best way to guard against future-self is to balance proper sleep with exercise and diet. This triad forms the foundation for willpower, what neuroscientists sometimes call "the mother of all virtues." Willpower, the ability to control yourself, is necessary for achieving any study goal—or any other type of goal, for that matter. Cheat any leg of the triad and you radically decrease your ability to learn.

 

9. Generally speaking, a person needs around 66 days to build a habit, so you'll need to follow the concepts outlined above for about two months before you find yourself doing them naturally.

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